The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP) at the U.S. State Department, which I had the privilege of directing, has put out the annual Trafficking in Persons Report. The report reflects candor on the global situation and on specific nations. Yet to deliver candid tough love in a way that persuades others to change, the United States needs to be credible in keeping its own house in order.
The report’s global statistics are striking. In the last year, there were 7,705 prosecutions and 4,746 convictions for human trafficking globally. These are welcome increases of 7 percent and 10.7 percent respectively from the year before.
Only 15 percent of prosecutions and less than 11 percent of convictions were related to labor rather than sexual exploitation. While indicating an area of impunity and a need for businesses to scrutinize global supply chains, these percentages are low given the International Labor Organization (ILO) 2012 finding that over three-quarters of trafficking victims in the private economy are exploited for labor. Justice demands that both types of trafficking—labor and sexual exploitation—be punished.
While holding perpetrators to account is necessary for victims to reclaim their dignity, even more important is ensuring victims’ protection and re-empowerment. This year’s report indicates that authorities identified 46,570 survivors globally, up 11.5 percent from the year before. Still, for those victims in the shadows of globalization who are never found, one cannot hope to offer housing, medical care, psychological counseling, job training, and economic self-sufficiency. The numbers identified are tiny compared to the total number of human trafficking victims a year, which the ILO conservatively estimates at 20.9 million.
As for specific countries, here’s a tip: don’t just look at the rank assigned. Read the country profile, and in particular the “Recommendations” paragraph. The diplomatic demarche the United States will deliver to a country on steps it should take to be considered for a higher future ranking is based on that crucial paragraph.
Still, since the grades have prompted change in numerous countries, they are significant. The State Department leadership deserves praise for taking the advice of the TIP Office on three nations reaching a time limit with a waiver for remaining on the Tier Two Watch List (the second lowest ranking). Russia, China, and Uzbekistan’s governments were each downgraded to Tier 3, signifying weak efforts to fight trafficking.
There are some efforts in all three nations one could exaggerate as pretext for an upgrade. The State Department’s top leaders must have been tempted to do so for perceived strategic reasons. Russia and China are needed for votes in the UN Security Council on Syria and otherwise. While horrendous on human rights, Russia and Uzbekistan have been helpful on access to supplying U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And China remains our banker. None of these is grounds for an assessment other than on the merits, and happily—surprisingly—they were not treated as such.
India as U.S. strategic partner was given a light touch when it was boosted up from the Tier 2 Watch List in 2011. One way India did improve is in the national government’s steps to work more closely in task forces with state and local authorities to implement longstanding laws against bonded labor. It recalls how the United States must think about modeling for others so as to elicit their change.
Visiting India in 2008 as anti-trafficking envoy, I urged officials of the country's Ministry of Home Affairs to press state and local authorities to implement anti-bonded labor laws on the books since 1976. One Indian official argued that in federal systems like those of both the United States and India, the national government cannot make the state-level authorities do what is in their purview to decide. I countered that the U.S. Federal Government in the 1960s transcended a deference to states’ rights by making sure laws banning discrimination against African-Americans got implemented in states.
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to end a mandate under the 1965 Voting Rights Act on several (Southern) states requiring them to pass muster with the U.S. Justice Department. This is shameful, and it represents moving backwards.
To avoid hypocrisy, the U.S. Government has properly published official assessments on its own trafficking record since 2006, growing in detail over time. Yet the Supreme Court decision undercuts the United States’s ability to say that it is trying to look out for those denied access to justice—like human trafficking victims. My talking point five years ago just went up in smoke.